Amy M Corey. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3: Television. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
“The way of the gay,” a phrase commonly used in Bravo TV’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, refers to a sense of style and a sense of humor that gay men are thought to possess. Playful, witty, and clever, their lifestyles are both polished and fashion forward. Here, “the way of the gay” does not explicitly refer to sexuality but instead to a way of stylizing life. “The way” is not limited to a specific sexual practice but is also a way of describing more urban and refined tastes. Such tastes are commonly referred to as a metrosexual style in which “men are now encouraged to use a whole set of beauty and body care products that were traditionally associated with women.” Here, “straight men explore their inner girlie guy” through more sophisticated practices and products. Spa treatments and scents, manscaping and manicures, as well as fashion and food create a style of life through a style of consumption. However, just as gay men are commonly regarded as more polished, straight men are commonly regarded as style deficient. They must be initiated into “the way of the gay” in order to upgrade their lifestyles. In need of guidance in both product and practice, straight men are trained in the art of consumption in order to cultivate a lifestyle.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and other Bravo TV programming, such as Tim Gunns Guide to Style, Top Chef, Project Runway, and Work Out center on creating a stylized life. This chapter first explores how consumption in these reality-based television programs is situated within the televisual landscape and then through the lens of lifestyle manuals. Second, some of the problems that arise from lifestyle consumption, including ideology and stereotyping, are addressed. Finally, Bravo TV programming is placed in the context of a larger promotional culture.
Reality-Based Television Programming
While “casual observers and critics alike were prone to dismiss” reality-based television as banal and a passing fad, “the fad has not passed. To the contrary, reality TV—or unscripted drama, as it is sometimes called—has become an accepted program genre for prime-time network TV.” Although reality-based television has a pervasive presence within the televisual landscape, it occupies a precarious position in television culture. Celebrated by some as more democratic and authentic television, it is more often criticized—even reviled—by others who regard it as thoroughly commercial and thus debased and contrived. Remaining hotly contested in both the academic and popular imaginations, there is no consensus on the value or function of the programs. While consensus regarding the merit of reality-based television programming may not be possible, or even desirable, these programs clearly have a tremendous impact on television culture and culture at large. In fact, such programming is an important site for negotiating meanings and values in contemporary culture. However, these programs are not simply sites for generating ideology and identity but also sites for generating considerable revenue. In this way, reality-based programs herald significant changes in subjective, consumptive, and promotional practices.
With this in mind, reality-based television programming is an extremely complicated genre. At base, its programs are hybrid, borrowing from established genres such as documentary, drama, soap opera, and game show. Within the genre itself, there are also a series of often overlapping subgenres such as game-doc, docu-soap, dating programs, and lifestyle programs. Here, the lifestyle subgenre holds particular importance because it is a significant, yet contested, site of culture, consumption, and identity. Included here are Bravo TV programs such as Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, Top Chef, Project Runway, and of course, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. As these programs borrow generic conventions, they can also be situated within larger webs of promotional culture and cultures of self-help. The defining feature of lifestyle programs is that they are dedicated to cultivating a style of life. However, not just any style of life will do—in order to be “proper” a lifestyle must be healthful, refined, and cultured. In order to achieve the proper lifestyle through these programs, experts impart wisdom and dole out advice for every area of life. From diet and exercise to grooming and hygiene, from fashion to etiquette and to even interior design, these programs provide training in order to help individuals cultivate a “proper” self. Here, it is also important to recognize that lifestyle refers to much more than simple attitudes or tastes but also to specific habits and chosen practices. In this way, lifestyle specifically refers to the exercises and procedures that go into constructing an artful life.
Not simply individual programs but also entire networks are devoted to lifestyle programming. For example, The Food Network, DIY, and Style Network each dedicate their programming to lifestyle through the elements of food, fashion, and design. As well, Bravo TV devotes its programming to the elements of lifestyle. “For a network that began life more than twenty-five years ago as a pay channel devoted to performing arts programming, Bravo has come a long way.” Bravo’s original programming now includes popular competitions such as Top Chef and Project Runway; docu-soaps such as Work Out and Flipping Out; and makeover shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style. The competitions, docu-soaps, and makeover programs all focus on the art of lifestyle. From how to get physically fit (Work Out), what to wear (Tim Gunns Guide to Style), what to eat (Top Chef), how to live and even how to bathe (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) they provide representations, motivations, and instructions toward a properly cultivated style of life.
Lifestyle Makeovers: Proper Living through Proper Consumption
“Bravo’s rise from an artsy pay channel to a network of the hip and smart” was achieved by marketing a distinct style of life. As Bravo TV’s flagship program, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has been credited for Bravo TV’s success. In fact, “Queer Eye changed the network from head to toe,” says Amy Introcaso-Davis, Bravo VP of Production and Development. Debuting in 2003, “in the first quarter, it’s prime time audience climbed 75%” and turned a critical hit into a cultural phenomenon. As a cultural phenomenon, Queer Eye binds proper living and proper consumption in ways that have had significant impact on promotional and consumptive practices. For instance, in its early stages, Bravo TV began “experimenting with alternate advertising deals, such as corporate sponsorships, ad exclusivity and cross-promotions with other media.” Queer Eye itself was “launched with small product placement deals … along with small salons and restaurants that don’t normally advertise on TV.” This kind of product placement and small business sponsorship opened new markets for lifestyle consumption, new sources of revenue for Bravo, and new potentials for sponsored product sales. In addition to being touted as the “textbook study in product placement,” Bravo TV was also among the first television networks to shift online content from a cost center to a revenues generator. These factors mark Bravo’s place in the vanguard of lifestyle promotion with Queer Eye at the forefront. According to Queer Eye’s micro site on http://BravoTV.com,
They call themselves the Fab Five. They are: An interior designer, a fashion stylist, a chef, a beauty guru and someone we like to call the “concierge of cool”—who is responsible for all things hip, including music and pop culture. All five are talented, they’re gay and they’re determined to clue in the cluttered, clumsy straight men of the world. With help from family and friends, the Fab Five treat each new guy as a head-to-toe project. Soon, the straight man is educated on everything from hair products to Prada and Feng Shui to foreign films. At the end of every fashion-packed, fun-filled lifestyle makeover, a freshly scrubbed, newly enlightened guy emerges—complete with that “new man” smell!
“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is a one-hour guide to “building a better straight man”—a “make better” series designed for guys who want to get the girl, the job or just the look. With the expertise and support of “The Fab Five”—Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley and Jai Rodriguez—the makeover unfolds with a playful deconstruction of the subject’s current lifestyle and continues on as a savagely funny showcase for the hottest styles and trends in fashion, home design, grooming, food and wine, and culture.
Queer Eye provides “style upgrades” for straight men. Life-styling involves detailed attention and is motivated by “the care of the self.” In other words, the “guys” are guided through a variety of practices in order to learn how to “take care” of themselves as they are trained to use an assortment of lifestyling products.
In this way, such programming can be considered among manuals for proper living. While reality-based television programming is a fairly recent phenomenon, guides concerning lifestyle and the care of the self have quite a long history. In fact, “the idea that one ought to attend to oneself, care for oneself (heautou epimeliesthai), was actually a very ancient theme in Greek culture.” For instance, Greco-Roman philosophers such as Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.), Epectitetus (55 C.E.-135 C.E.), Marcus Aurelius (121 C.E.-180 C.E.), and Athenaeus (c. 190 C.E.) were rather preoccupied with the proper care of the self. Each focused diligent attention on all aspects of life in ways that helped to “define, in the form of knowledge and rules, a way of living, a reflective mode of relation to oneself, one’s body, to food, to wakefulness and sleep, to the various activities, and to the environment.” Here, a style of life is cultivated through attention to and care of oneself.
In discussing Greco-Roman modes of living, Foucault identifies “technologies of the self.” Technologies of the self are the activities and practices that individuals choose to perform; individuals select certain practices over others in an effort to cultivate a certain body, a certain identity, a certain lifestyle. Even during Greco-Roman times, technologies of lifestyle manifested in regimes for diet, exercise, grooming, sexuality, meditation, sleep, and so forth. In this way, technologies of the self are technologies of lifestyle in which taking care of the self is paramount.
Cultivating a lifestyle involves both training and expert advice. First, lifestyle “implies certain modes of training and modification … [in which] … every technique of production requires modification of individual conduct—not only skills but also attitudes.” In order to ensure proper conduct, skills, and attitudes, individuals are in need of the advice of experts. For instance, Athenaeus stated that “whether we are walking or sitting, whether we are oiling our body or taking a bath, whether we are eating, drinking—in a word, whatever we may do, during the whole course of life … we have need of advice for an employment of this life that is worthwhile.” With the guidance of experts, individuals develop a careful regimen to support the art of living in which “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to maintain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”
Although Greco-Roman and contemporary systems both operate on a principle of the care of the self through lifestyle training, they differ greatly in terms of the ethics at work. For instance, Greco-Roman lifestyle regimens operated on an ethic of moderation. In other words, a proper lifestyle was a moderate lifestyle. Individuals should be careful not to over indulge in any area of life: food, drink, rest, activity, sexual practice, and so forth. Here the choice of a moderate lifestyle formed a “state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” In contrast, contemporary lifestyle manuals operate on an ethic of excess in which a proper lifestyle is developed through the purchase and use of consumer products. The choice of certain hair products over others, certain fashion designers over others, certain foods or beverages over others are what form this “state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” In this way, contemporary manuals for proper living are actually manuals for proper consumption in which individuals must carefully select from an excess of consumer products.
In sum, current lifestyle manuals differ from historical lifestyle manuals by employing an ethic of excess instead of an ethic of moderation. They comprise manuals for proper consumption rather than manuals for proper temperance. Herein lies the implication that consumer choice, rather than individual restraint, is the proper way to care for oneself and thus the path to happiness. It is also significant in that contemporary lifestyle consumption is intimately bound to contemporary television programming. At base a commercial medium, television culture is itself a culture of consumption. Viewers consume programming in ways that link programming choices to lifestyle choices. The relationships between program consumption and lifestyle consumption, as well as the relationships between product placement, ideology, and narrative content, set the stage for this discussion of promotional culture.
Queer Eye: A Manual for Living, a Manual for Consumption
While the Fab Five may not be considered among the great philosophers of our time, they effectively serve as the experts who guide hapless straight men to the art of living through the art of consumption. More than a simple “male makeover,” participants undergo a transformation of requiring the “modification of individual conduct—not only skills but also attitudes” surrounding their consumptive practices. Consider BravoTV.com’s description of Vincent’s Queer Eye makeover, titled “For Better and For Verse: Sweet Music” (episode 106):
Vincent is a studio manager by day, keyboard player and back-up vocalist for The Cleftones by night. In his heart, Vincent yearns to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight as a solo vocalist. He’ll need a little help in the areas of grooming, fashion and performance technique to get there, and along the way he hopes to surprise his wife with a less-cluttered, more livable home decor. The Fab Five’s mission: bring enough order to the chaos and polish to the performance to earn Vincent a standing ovation.
Vincent is ready to break through the clutter of his apartment, enhance his fashion sense and go from back-up singer to solo star. All he needed was the help of five talented, smartly dressed queers—and honey, I ain’t talking about the Village People.
The Fab Five arrive at Vincent’s home to assess their mission. Immediately revealed is a dirty, messy, cluttered apartment. They describe his home as “pretty filthy” a “pig sty,” “a disaster,” “tragic,” and Carson even asks “have you ever seen such a clutter-fest in your life!?” Clearly, the “clutter-fest” supplies ample evidence of Vincent’s consumption. From unemptied trash bins to stacks of CDs, from children’s toys strewn about the floor to unwashed dishes in the sink, from closets bulging with outmoded clothes to spoiled food in the refrigerator, Vincent’s consumption is carefully displayed for the viewer. However, while Vincent is already a consumer, it is clear that he does not consume properly. As the Fab Five playfully critique all areas of Vincent’s lifestyle, they assess the food he eats, his shaving habits and grooming, his home environment, and his design sense. The Fab Five set out on their mission to transform Vincent from a clueless consumer to a cultivated one.
The transformation focuses on training Vincent in new consumptive practices. Each member of the Fab Five has a specialty to “educate” Vincent. Queer Eye’s micro site on http://BravoTV.com lists Kyan Douglas as the “grooming guru,” Thom Filicia as the “design doctor,” Jai Rodriguez as the “culture vulture,” Carson Kressley as the “fashion savant,” and Ted Allen as the “food and wine connoisseur.” Also according to Queer Eye’s micro site on BravoTV. com, Vincent begins his transformation with Kyan on grooming:
Another straight guy, another first-ever trip to the spa. There, Vincent gets his head professionally shaved and his scalp treated with an essential-oil mask. Aloe for the eyes, mud for the face and an impeccable manicure complete the treatment. Back home, Kyan alters his usual shave-after-showering advice to a shave-while-showering strategy for Vincent so that his head and beard remain their softest.
Kyan brings Vincent to Paul Labrecque, a posh day spa in Manhattan. During the course of his treatments, he is taught to use various products for proper grooming. As Kyan names the benefits they provide, he is also careful to name the product itself. Not simply incorporating product placement into the program but specific product use into the narrative, Queer Eye became the “perfect vehicle for retailers.” Intensifying traditional notions of brand integration, “Bravo’s research and ad-sales team … weave advertisers’ brands within the fabric of the show.” Throughout Vincent’s makeover, the product content of the program is indistinguishable from the narrative content of the program. Also keeping “their involvement going during commercial breaks” through traditional advertising spots, this form of promotional storytelling is the height of brand integration. This move is also significant in that it transforms the relationships between promotion, advertising, and questions of control over creative content because, quite simply in Queer Eye, promotional content is narrative content.
Queer Eye continues promotional storytelling as Vincent continues his transformation. According to http://BravoTV.com,
Ted and Jai take Vincent to T Salon in search of a brew that might calm his nerves and soothe his throat. Added heat therapy comes in the form of a personal steamer, frequently used by professional singers to clear up congestion, and all-natural lozenge.
Following, we join the boys at T Salon, an upscale Manhattan tea house. Here, Vincent learns about teas to soothe the throat before a performance as well as the differences between black teas, rooibos, tisane, and more. They go to a posh sitting room for a tea tasting, complete with individual tea pots, delicate cups, and saucers. Ted and Jai also present Vincent with a selection of T Salon’s throat-soothing teas, Thayer’s Slippery Elm lozenges, and a Sharper Image personal steamer for singers. Again, product content and narrative content are clearly coupled on Queer Eye. In this relationship, Bravo and sponsors such as The Sharper Image engage in mutual exchange. Bravo exchanges its audience to generate not only revenue but also to receive product and thus material for its narrative content. In exchange, Bravo sells its audience to the advertisers. Such sponsorships are coveted relationships in which “lots of marketers with products in interior decorating, makeover and clothing showed interest” in “getting a piece of the ‘Eye,’” thus the promise of generating sales for the carefully placed products.
On his journey, Vincent moves from spa to salon. As he does so, he receives several “hip tips.” These are guidelines such as “bag the bag, loose tea is best” and are designed to provide advice for future consumption for Vincent as well as viewers. With a trip to Bed Bath & Beyond, Thom imparts another hip tip: “lampshades: mix and match to customize.” He then helps Vincent with the task of decorating his home. According to http://BravoTV.com,
A trip to the store yields new sheets, lamps for the bedroom plus towels, table settings and a new teapot. Back at the apartment, Thom demonstrates the “less is more” principle by boxing up huge amounts of accumulated junk and putting them into storage. New paint, wall sconces and well-framed photos decorate the walls, and a mirrored headboard is the centerpiece of Vincent’s redesigned bedroom.
Under Thom’s artful eye, Vincent shops for everything a home could need: pillows, sheets, towels, area rugs, china, flatware, and lamp lighting. While it is significant that generic language is used in the previous description, both visual and verbal narration specifically refer to Bed Bath & Beyond during the episode itself. As well, the named products are listed for each individual episode on Bravo’s Web guide to shopping.
All the while, Carson has been busy shopping for fashions to complete Vincent’s “new look.” http://BravoTV.com describes Vincent’s next steps as
Carson presents Vincent with a selection of styles including both everyday looks (with a focus on slimming vertical stripes) and a few sparkly selections for his on-stage wardrobe. The latter options feature bolder colors and embroidery or flocking to provide eye-catching detail. An extremely elegant black-and-white ensemble mixing some of his own clothing with new items hand-picked by Carson is chosen for Vincent’s big solo debut.
Vincent joins Carson at the shop of designer Beau Goss. Carson picks out a variety of fashions and teaches Vincent about each piece of clothing. Carson completely redresses Vincent and teaches him what is fashionable, what is not, and most importantly, how to know the difference. Upon arriving at home Carson bursts in exclaiming, “let’s have a fashion show!” The Fab Five then pile on Vincent’s bed as he displays his new wardrobe. As he does so, Carson explains his fashion choices via brand names such as Beau Goss, Express, and Hagar. In addition to comprising the narrative content in promotional storytelling, sharing names can also be used as a symbolic system to communicate with others and to express status along the path of lifestyle consumption.
Throughout his transformation, Vincent was trained in a better lifestyle through better consumption. His instruction concerned which products were superior to others and how to use those products in order to create a superior style. During the makeover, product placement was both careful and deliberate. As each expert guided Vincent through the world of life-styling, they essentially provided him with a series of product pitches. Comprising the central part of the narrative, “you have experts on the show who are recommending products. These experts are anointing brands.” In this way, Queer Eye satisfies a primary concern for lifestyle manuals, the “need of advice for an employment of this life that is worthwhile.” Most significantly, Vincent learned the art of living through the art of consuming. From general products such as loose-leaf teas and mix-matched lampshades to named products such as Thayer’s, Beau Goss, and Bed Bath & Beyond, Vincent styles his life by styling his consumption.
Gender, Sexuality, and Consumption
At work in Queer Eye are assumptions regarding gender and sexuality that complicate traditional notions of consumption. Consumption itself has long been associated with femininity. However, “gayness, femininity, and consumption are conjoined concepts in contemporary culture.” Such definition fuels the notion that the “gay male market … is assumed to have an inherent access to greater degrees of refinement and taste than straight men.” While these are widespread cultural assumptions, they are problematic because they stem from stereotypes. Although “TV is comfortable with stereotypes because nuance is too difficult to explain to tens of millions of viewers,” stereotyping is a dangerous cultural practice. Stereotyping functions by reducing an individual or group to a few, limited qualities. They fundamentally constrain the range and complexity of a given identity. Stereotypes are also problematic because they work to essentialize identity. In other words, they function to make these qualities appear natural (i.e., a result of an innate “essence” or natural biology) rather than socially constructed (i.e., a result of cultural creation). According to the representations in Queer Eye, gay men must “care about domestic detail—colour schemes, furniture, the thread count of their linens, etc.” They also dash about town “snapping off witty, snotty little quips.” Through these stereotypes, viewers are presented with only one picture of gay masculinity when, in fact, there exists a vast range of gay masculinities. Because Queer Eye’s stereotypes “never stray too far from what non-gays expect them to be,” the progressive potential of representing gay masculinity is curtailed.
However, the practice of stereotyping is not limited to marginalized groups. Ironically, this is “score one for equality. The men on both sides of the sexual divide are presented as stereotypes on this show.” Dominant groups, straight men in the case of Queer Eye, are also stereotyped. Here, they are represented as slovenly, unkempt, and unrefined. According to these stereotypes, to be a straight man is to be unable to match a shirt to a pair of pants, match the color of a wine to the appropriate cuisine, or match a shampoo to a shower gel.
Also according to these stereotypes, gay and straight men seem to live in different worlds. Queer Eye, however, appears to bridge this gap. Looking past pure stereotypes, this program features “non violent, mutually respectful, cooperative relations between openly homosexual and heterosexual men.” Herein lies the potential to displace traditional stereotypes surrounding masculinity and improve the relational and political situations for gay citizens. This potential, however, is not realized. While television is at its base a commercial medium, it is important to engage its content and function at the intersection of economy and ideology. In addition to generating profits, television is also a potentially democratic medium through which to educate, inform, and foster dialogue. Even if falling short of its altruistic potentials, television programming is a primary source for the production and circulation of values and ideas. Here, the gap between progressive social possibilities and economic gains should, at the least, be acknowledged. Ultimately, however, it is clear that displacing gendered stereotypes and generating revenue are incompatible aims for Queer Eye. In fact, rather than working to improve hetero/homo relations, Queer Eye effectively disciplines them.
While constructs of masculinity are clearly called into question, its traditional definitions are carefully recovered. On one hand, Queer Eye teases gendered stereotypes by representing men who engage in traditionally feminine cultural competencies. Exemplifying another play on gender, Vincent is held accountable for the disarray in his domestic setting, while his wife is absolved of responsibility. On the other hand, the uncertainty surrounding in/appropriate gender is easily resolved because “Queer Eye ensures that the masculinity of the men being made over is emphasized through their choice of ‘projects.’” Recall that the makeover projects focus on “building a better straight man” for “guys who want to get the girl [and] get the job.” In other words, the projects featured on Queer Eye center on heterosexual romance and career advancement, which are two very traditionally masculine ideals. In this way, homosexuality is represented for the purpose of recovering and reinforcing heterosexuality. Recall that Vincent’s goals are to “surprise his wife” and “go from back up singer to solo star.” During his transformation http://BravoTV.com states that
Broadway pro Jai gives Vincent a few performance pointers, including the recommendation that before he take the stage Vincent find a place to relax, tune out all distractions and focus—if necessary in the bathroom, if that’s the only private spot he can find. Their plan is to bring his wife out on stage at the start of the song, “I’m So In Love With You,” and for Vincent to insert a little dedication speech to her into the chorus.
Jai, a seasoned performer, brings Vincent to the nightclub where he will be performing his first solo. Here he focuses on Vincent’s career advancement by teaching him to build confidence for his performance. Jai also coaches Vincent on how to court his wife by bringing her on stage and dedicating a song to her. Jai focuses on teaching Vincent the art of romance by centering the heterosexual standard.
The recovery of heterosexual masculinity is complete as http://BravoTv.com describes Vincent’s “reveal:”
Vincent’s wife Vivia is floored by the transformation in their apartment. So floored, in fact, she doesn’t even notice his natty new attire until after no fewer than eighteen “oh my god”s (we counted) and two thumbs up for the paint in the hallway. After a few more compliments, the two hurry out to the club for a Cleftones performance and Vincent’s solo surprise. At Jimmy’s Uptown Cafe, the Cleftones express their enthusiasm for the Vincent’s appearances. After the first set, Vincent changes into his black and white outfit and confidently strides out on stage for his special solo number. His touching performance brings the crowd to their feet and tears to Vivia’s eyes.
Vincent is a guy with a great heart and good intentions who was in need of a nudge in the right direction. All of his efforts at self-improvement were geared to making a better life for the two of them. Rather than use his time on stage as a means to glorify himself and hog the spotlight, he chose to share the moment with Vivia. The whole makeover process, from “shock and awe” start to standing-o finish, was really about their love, not his ego.
With a focus on heterosexual romance and career advancement, hegemonic definitions of masculinity are centered and rendered normal. Pushing homosexuality further into the margins, it is also extremely significant that the Fab Five are not present for Vincent’s reveal. Instead, they view it via CCTV from their stylishly decorated New York loft. Hetero and homo alike return to their separate spheres, leaving the gap between their worlds intact. Queer Eye may appear progressive through the representation of marginalized identities and a focus on gay expertise. However, it is not simply lifestyle products but also gay cultural competencies that are consumed during the makeovers. While initially blurred, the lines surrounding gender, sexuality, and consumption are again drawn along the straight and narrow.
Lifestyle consumption can be situated within a larger promotional culture. Promotional culture describes contemporary forms of consumption and commerce as they infiltrate other, noneconomic, spheres of life. In this way, “all our contemporary discourse … is saturated in the rhetoric of promotion, which now exists as a generalized social category.” Promotion is a condition; it is an “all pervasive and unstable force,” for which “the world of goods and their principles of structuration are central to the understanding of contemporary society.” We not only make sense of the world in which we live through the products we consume, but promotion becomes the principle for other symbolic forms of meaning. Elements of commerce and consumption have influenced other spheres of life, most clearly the development of life-style. Furthermore, where advertising, public relations, marketing, branding, and so on were once considered to be separate spheres of commercial relations, they can now be thought of as layers of a singular promotional culture. In this way, “promotion crosses the line between advertising, packaging, and design, and is applicable, as well, to activities beyond the immediately commercial.” Regarding Queer Eye, as well as other Bravo TV programs, the most prominent layers of promotional culture lie in (1) branded entertainment and product placement as promotional storytelling; (2) sponsored online services such as broadband episodes, pod casts, and product shopping guides; and (3) lifestyle promotion as self-promotion. In this way, Bravo TV’s lifestyle programs engage in “a process of layering techniques and strategies, culminating in a versatile, multi-dimensional armory” for promotional culture. In these programs, it is most significant to remember that the “non-advertising content of such media can be considered … as an extension of their ads.”
One of the most striking features of Queer Eye is, of course, product placement. Recall that throughout Vincent’s makeover, the Fab Five were careful to identify individual products and retail sponsors in ways inseparable from the narrative content of the episode. From Bed Bath & Beyond to T Salon and Paul Labrecque, clothing from Express to Beau Goss and even throat lozenges from Thayer’s, no placed product is left unnamed. On Bravo TV, named products are coupled with commercial advertising spots in ways that “allow the network to plug a show, as well as the marketer’s involvement.” Other layers of promotional culture can be found on Queer Eye’s microsite on http://BravoTV.com. For instance, comprehensive systems of ad-sponsored links to the placed products are available through their Web services along with broadband episodes and shopping guides. Additionally, Bravo is “also offering sponsorable podcasts of Fab Five ‘Hip Tips.’” In this way, promotional culture is thoroughly bound to lifestyle consumption as commercial sponsors “take their message from the 30-second spot to something that’s directly actionable on the web.”
While Queer Eye has been called “the single most shameless corporate tramp on TV,” this program is not alone. In fact, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style operates similarly. According to http://BravoTV.com,
In each episode of “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” Gunn uses his unmatched counseling skills, to turn the fashion weary into polished individuals. While Gunn focuses on the big picture of each subject’s transformation, [Veronica] Webb guides the women through shopping the Tim Gunn way, by steering their choices and listening to their concerns and offering solutions. The series utilizes several tools to help a diverse set of women make themselves over, including a list of various “fashion icons” the subjects pick from to determine who inspires their style … Then, when building their signature looks, the subjects use Gunn’s “essential shopping list,” which includes 10 basic pieces that no closet should be without. Armed with Gunn’s rules … Gunn calls on his friends and colleagues to put the finishing touches on the women, including hair and make-up.
Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style is also a makeover program that focuses on transformation through lifestyle consumption. Employing taste and style, Gunn’s makeover candidates are also instructed in the art of fashion as an art of lifestyle. Not surprisingly, products are carefully placed throughout the makeover. For example, makeover candidates invariably go on a shopping trip to Macy’s and meet top fashion designers. Likewise, Gunn’s microsite on http://BravoTV.com provides instructions to “Get the Look” by using hair products by Garnier Fructis and makeup by Maybelline. Gunn also features a library of “Video Tips” for more detailed lifestyle instructions.
Project Runway differs because it is a competition rather than a makeover program. However, it also exemplifies lifestyle consumption with a focus on high fashion, taste, and style within promotional culture. According to Project Runway’s microsite on http://BravoTV.com,
“Project Runway” features host supermodel Heidi Klum and a panel of industry luminaries, including judges Michael Kors, top women’s and men’s wear designer and Nina Garcia, ELLE magazine fashion director, as they decide who is “in” and who is “out.” The 15 “Project Runway” contestants will be whittled down to the finalists who will show their own line in front of an audience of fashion industry movers and shakers at New York Fashion Week. As part of the winner’s prize package, an editorial feature on the winning designer will run in an issue of ELLE, the winner will walk away with a cash prize of $100,000 from TRESemmé professional hair care to start their own line, and will have the opportunity to sell a fashion line on http://Bluefly.com. Saturn will award the winner a 2008 Saturn Astra.
Project Runway is also peppered with placements for products such as Elle, Saturn, TREsemme, and Bluefly as well as frequent trips to Manhattan’s Mood fabric store. Again, this exemplifies the condition of promotional culture in which even nonadvertising content is blended into the narrative in order to function promotionally. However, Project Runway moves away from purely instructional lifestyle consumption. Rather, Project Runway also belongs to promotional culture via the art of self-promotion. Self-promotion refers to the ways in which individuals create and present themselves in order to market themselves to others. Project Runway is a vehicle through which aspiring fashion designers promote their skills, designs, and most importantly, themselves. Participants in Project Runway may in fact be more engaged in self-promotion than they are in sewing garments. Here, the designer becomes an integrated line and a brand. In selling one’s designs as oneself, identity and commodity overlap. In this way, winning the competition means more than winning a cash prize; it also means winning an endorsed identity.
Top Chef, also a competition program, functions similarly. Instead of couture, however, Top Chef focuses on cuisine. According to its microsite on http://BravoTV.com,
“Top Chef 3 Miami” features 15 of the country’s most impressive rising chefs-all packed in a house in beautiful Miami Beach—where the sun is hot and the competition is hotter. “Queer Eye” ‘s culinary expert Ted Allen brings his expertise to the judges table this season, joining cookbook author, actress and host Padma Lakshmi; Tom Colicchio, celebrated culinary figure and co-founder of Craft Restaurants; and returning judge Gail Simmons of Food & Wine. The 15 contestants will reside in the luxurious beachfront Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, where the season’s production activity will be centered.
In addition to featuring well-placed products such as Glad, Top Chef’s microsite is complete with product guides, recipes, and Video Tips. Where Project Runway features appearances by top designers such as Vera Wang and Donna Karan, Top Chef features appearances by celebrity chefs such as Sirio Maccioni and Rocco diSpirito. In this way, both programs capitalize on already branded personalities while also assisting others in developing an endorsed identity.
Finally, Bravo’s most blatantly self-promotional program is Work Out. Work Out is neither a makeover nor competition program but instead is a docu-soap. According to Work Out’s microsite on http://BravoTV.com,
“Work Out,” returns to follow the professional and personal life of Jackie Warner, elite trainer and owner of Sky Sport & Spa in Beverly Hills, CA. Everything inside of her leading penthouse fitness facility is visually impressive, including the state-of-the-art equipment and the most attractive staff of trainers in the city. “Work Out” examines how these people work and play together, inside and outside the gym.
First and foremost, Work Out promotes lifestyle consumption by focusing on the development of a healthful way of life. From Jackie’s morning health shake to exercise boot camps, Work Out promotes the elements of a “fit” lifestyle. As a docu-soap, viewers also follow Jackie as she designs and promotes Sky Sport, as she designs and promotes Sky Spa, and as she designs and promotes her line of fitness apparel. Here, there is no distinction between Jackie Warner herself and the practices and products she sells. For example, the success of Sky Sport is solely dependent on successful self-promotion. Crossing the lines between persona and product as well as consumption and culture, these multiple forms of promotion interlock.
Also significant in Work Out is the attention paid to Jackie’s same-sex love life. The docu-soap follows her through a tumultuous relationship and subsequent breakup with her girlfriend during season one. Jackie then begins a scandalous relationship with one of her female trainers at Sky Sport during season two. Unlike Queer Eye, same-sex relationships on Work Out are highly sexualized. However, “the way of the gay” on both programs focuses on appropriate living through health and style. Within promotional culture, gay cultural competence is exploited as a means of cultivating a style of life. These Bravo TV programs function as lifestyle manuals and operate on an ethic of consumption.
While promotion may be an accepted element of commercial television, it is also an endemic cultural condition. Consumption and self-promotion are simply daily activities. For instance, “from dating and clothing shopping to attending a job interview, virtually everyone is involved in the self promotionalism which overlays such practices.” However, while promotional culture may be endemic, it is not democratic. Promotional culture describes a contemporary consumer condition, and attention should be paid to the inequalities produced through its forms. First, while lifestyle consumption may acknowledge gay cultural competence, it also marginalizes those identities by continuing to rely on stereotypes. Additionally, the ability to consume is not equally accorded to all. In fact, some may be trapped by lifestyle consumption while others are simply excluded from it. In this way, cultivating a style of life remains a complicated set of practices within layers of promotional culture.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that commercial television will attend to such complications as long as they remain unprofitable. In fact, television networks will likely continue to develop forms of promotional storytelling because they are a lucrative means to increase an advertised product’s reach into the lifestyle practices of viewers. Bravo TV has achieved this not simply by incorporating product placement into its programs but specific product use into its narratives. This is a significant layer of promotional culture in which the product content of Bravo’s programs is indistinguishable from the narrative content of its programs. Deeply layered in the stratum of promotional culture, Bravo TV has successfully expanded sponsorship from the traditional 30-second ad spot through the program’s narrative to actionable online content. As lifestyle manuals, Bravo TV’s programs specifically provide the expert advice necessary to help viewers select from the excess of consumer products available. In a promotional culture, the synergistic relationships between sponsors and networks give way to synergy with consumers in which Bravo TV offers its viewers lifestyle training through the art of consumption. For Better or For Verse, this describes the social and economic conditions of life itself as commercially styled and thoroughly embedded within layers of promotion.